Every once in a while, I open the mailbox and inside sits a padded, brown envelope about the size of a book. I start to get excited. Then I pull it out and read the return address. More often than not, it’s from a publisher. Excitement turns to thrill as I tear open the package to see which book it is, because it’s not a book I ordered. It was sent to me because I’m on the list of reviewers for several major publishing houses, and the book in my hand is an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC), one the public hasn’t seen yet — an extra thrill. But this is where the thrill might continue to build or vanish entirely.
Like any reader, the first thing I do is “judge the book by the cover.” Admit it: we all do it. Part of that cover includes the back, the synopsis. When I’m considering purchasing a book, I judge it entirely on the storyline on the back. Like it, buy it. But as a reviewer, the synopsis simply serves as an intro to give me an idea how much I’ll like this book that I promised to read.
When my ARC of The Guilty One by Scottish author Lisa Ballantyne arrived, I loved the cover art and design. It caught my attention immediately. Then I flipped it over and read the synopsis. Two points. We were off to a good start. That evening, I opened and read the first chapter and knew I was going to like the book. I was right. It almost went by too quickly.
The story Lisa Ballantyne has crafted is both moving and inspirational, yet gritty and realistic. She has created characters with meaning and depth. And her plethoric use of amazingly detailed descriptions was so vivid I felt like I was standing not in the rooms of a fictional book but right there in the heart of the English countryside, a place I’ve never seen in person.
I loved the book so much I contacted HarperCollins and requested an author interview, which Lisa graciously granted.
Lisa, as an author myself I’m always curious to know what influences writers to create their stories and characters. Why did you write The Guilty One? What inspired you to create Daniel, Minnie, Sebastian, and the other cast members? And why this storyline?
I wrote this book because the characters of Daniel and Minnie began to ‘inhabit me’, right down to the smell of them. After musing on their relationship I realised this story was being told by Daniel as an adult; I could see him in a suit in London. Later on, I discovered he was a solicitor and it was only then I had the idea of giving him a client who was a young child on trial for murder – in order to throw Daniel’s own troubled childhood into relief. I wrote this book purely because the characters came to me and demanded to be written.
However, for a long time, I have been interested in choice, free will and nature versus nurture. I think we are finding out more every day about the interplay between nature, nurture and free will. There can be no doubt that people’s upbringing and neurological wiring has a huge impact on their future choices, but that does not diminish the power of free will. My personal view is that nothing is inevitable. Science has shown that even people with genetic variants and brain activity indicative of sociopaths can still lead productive, moral lives. I am wary of anyone who would wish to simplify what is a very complex equation. Human beings are fascinating and complex which is wonderful for fiction. I am sure that my own interest in this subject area fuelled the themes of the book.
Your writing style and attention to detail really made the characters jump off the page. I felt like I could sit down and have a cup of coffee with all of them. How do you go about creating believable and relatable characters?
Thank you so much for your kind comments. There really is no greater compliment for a writer than readers believing in her characters. My characters remain the only reason I write. I love them and I want to do them justice. I myself am not sure how their creation happens. It is almost as if I gradually become aware of them as real people and then the plot evolves through understanding their foibles and traits.
How much research did you have to do for the scenes in Old Bailey? Did you sit in on any proceedings or interview anyone in the criminal justice system?
The whole novel required a substantial amount of research: even the locations of London, Newcastle and Cumbria were unfamiliar to me. However I did have to particularly research the criminal justice system in England and this took up a lot of time. I visited the Old Bailey in London three times and sat in on ongoing cases, and I also had the help of a Scottish criminal solicitor, who helped me to understand how a case would be argued in court and what Sebastian would experience before trial.
As authors, we all enlist the help of experts for the storyline details. Did you know a lot about the British juvenile justice system already or did you seek help for that?
The legal system in Scotland (where I am from) and England are different, so even with my solicitor’s help I still had to cross reference against the English context. Despite the fact that there was an enormous amount of research required, it was hugely enjoyable. Once again, my interest in the characters fueled my research. It was like stalking my own imagination.
How long did it take for you to create The Guilty One from idea to finished book?
From idea to completed draft which I sent to the publishers – 12 or thirteen months – but then there was an editing process to follow which took about 6 months.
I loved the back and forth between Daniel’s childhood and the present. What made you decide to write it that way?
I think that novels tell the writer how they will be written rather than the other way around. This narrative method was the only way that this book would work; it was the way that this story wanted to be told.
Is this the first of a series or a stand-alone book?
I see this as a stand-alone book, but I will likely continue to be interested in and write about the themes in this novel.
What is the future for Daniel and Irene?
They are lovely. They are the hope. I think Daniel learns a lot in this novel, about love and trust; and hopefully he will bring that new insight to his developing relationship with Irene. I wish them well.
Are you working on any other projects right now?
I am working hard on my new novel which I hope to publish soon.
How can people get a hold of your books?
The Guilty One is available at all major book retailers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore and many others. Visit HarperCollins.com for a full list.